Issue 109, Winter 1988
He was one of those reporters. Never in a place long. Always going away, always coming back. Then he seemed to be around more. Then he was calling me up. I knew he did not have the most promising history with women. I knew that. I kept cool, he kept calling.
Afterwards when things fell apart and he drifted away, well, like fog really, I thought back to those early days when he’d been so persistent. Some men are at their best in pursuit. They put on clean shirts, have a certain gleam in their eye.
Then that gleam fades. He grows distracted, glances off, not wanting to miss the next thing coming along.
Uncertainty is like a drug. It quickens the blood, wears on the nerves. Slowly it dawned on me this was one of those loose and easy things. Maybe I’ll learn something, I thought. I did. I learned things. I learned I didn’t have the stomach for it. You need an iron stomach, and nerves of steel.
I was relieved when the man went off, finally, to South Africa. He planned a long stay.
Still, traces of him remained. At first, it was his name. I avoided the people he knew.
But at a dinner party strangers were discussing how the man had been spotted in some exotic locale with a mysterious woman at the end of a very long hall. Where does he find them? one person asked. He keeps them secret, another replied.
Or I end up at a restaurant sitting in the exact same chair I sat in one time with the man. Up his face rises like something out of “The Wizard of Oz,” underlit, ghoulish, laughing in a weird way, really not like the man at all.
I began to take in more movies than usual. Working for a film magazine I see plenty of movies already. Movies are soothing, they take you out of yourself But movies can also take you over. Credits begin to drift over me while I’m brushing my teeth or buying a token. A soundtrack swells and I’m in another world. It’s not always the best movie. This did not happen when the man was around. When I was with him, I was simply there.
At the club everyone wears black. Metal lawn chairs sit unevenly on the concrete. Women’s high heels bob from crossed legs, drinks spill lazily. A long marine tank set into one wall casts off a green glow. The music is deep and relentless and rather stirring. The fish in the tank, oblivious, sealed off, glide slowly in one direction, flip around, glide slowly in the other. Someone taps me on the shoulder.
I move aside and the green light falls on the stranger’s face. His eyebrows are raised expectantly. I don’t recognize him. Then I do and feel myself blush. I’ve met him only once. He’s a friend of the man’s. It acts like an electric conductor, zapping me.
This is not what I expected. This is not what I thought he’d leave behind.
The man’s articles appear. In them he’s gone on to be another person, one I don’t know anymore, off in other worlds. Those worlds begin to matter more.
Everywhere I go people have bad backs, something the man had. In the middle of an interview a director excuses himself to lie down on the editing room floor, just as the man would 78 . SUSAN MINOT do, slipping into a back room at a party to lie next to a bed piled with coats. He lay very still, nothing moving but his eye-balls. The only thing to do for a bad back, he’d say, was bear it. It’s the sort of thing my father would say.
I swim at the Health Club. A huge tiled room echoing with splashes. Tiny waves teem on the surface, lights make eel reflections. One bullish head plows forward, thunderous kick, frothy wake. At the end of a lane, he tucks into a ball, flips and shoots forward like a torpedo. I don’t even dare go in.
I visit my brother who’s an investment banker. They’ve got a house, a baby. My sister-in-law consoles me. “All men are rats,” she says and smoothes my brother’s forehead adoringly. “Even the angels.” The lawn at the back of their house is absolutely unremarkable but in the evenings the space is so tranquil it’s mesmerizing with the dark shadows at the edge. The baby crawls on it; to her it’s a vast plain. That night when I get into bed I’m exhausted. The leaves are rustling at the window, the man’s voice is in them.
Midday, midtown. A man dashing through the bright crowd bears a remarkable resemblance. This was happening a lot. Men across subway platforms. Dark figures sidling in late to movies. A lone soul at the end of a block, rocking on his heels, waiting for a cab. But this fellow, his hair slicked back, was carrying a shopping bag from a lingerie shop, one I knew. Through the curling holes in the bag’s design, I could see black lacey things. The man had certains tastes, certain things he liked. His face would become serious and harsh when I tried those things on.
I find pockets of calm. At the museum, past the flower sprays, up the sweeping staircase, I spend time in the emptier rooms. Flemish paintings, fifteenth-century gold frames. There he is, in one, gripping a sword handle, glancing down in a disdainful way.
Suddenly I have a hundred questions for him, things I didn’t ask before except now that he keeps appearing I realize how little I knew. Who was he anyway? Who is he now?
The woman on the hotel staircase was crying. I’d seen her before in the lobby, smoking, in a strapless dress. “I’m trying to understand,” she said in a trembling voice to the black-tied fellow at her side. He held her elbow with a tentative hand as they moved slowly up the stairs. “You say one thing and do another,” the woman sobbed, too upset to care if anyone could hear. “There’s just so much I can take.” The man mumbled. I couldn’t hear what but a man explaining himself to a woman has a certain particular tone. The woman cried, “But it’s different for a woman!” All hope seemed gone from her voice.
The library is peaceful. I stack books under the lampshade, researching articles. Heads at other tables are bent over gently, pages rustle. Shoes clop by on the wooden floor. The heating vent hums in the drowsy air. Then I hear his voice behind me. It says my name.
Going to the movies, people say, is like returning to the womb. But that’s not quite right. Your eyes are one pair in a galaxy of eyes, all gazing with a kind of rapture at bright things flickering across a screen. You watch the same movement, have the same current running through your hearts. You’re not alone at all.
Things appear at the corner of my eye. A fleeting figure ducking into an alley. Someone fifteen stories up slipping behind a terrace pillar. Across my street curtains close the second I glance over.
I wake in the middle of the night and the man’s head is poking through a jagged hole in the wall. His expression is oddly inquisitive, in a scientific way. It is not a look he ever actually gave me.
I once had a conviction having to do with love. I floated on the certainty of it. It was a man’s name. But devotion on its own can’t last. It is a silly, foolish thing. I thought I knew how to guard against an attachment.
The man and I were driving in the country. He was at the wheel, telling me a story of one of his adventures. He’d been stuck in some war-torn hill town in Central America, barely knowing the language, a deserted place far from everything, not sure if he’d get out alive. He turned his face toward me, talking lazily, making jokes about it. It was evening and growing dark with a moon flickering behind him out the window. He leaned in, looking back and forth between me and the road. We were sealed off, traveling through a darkening world. At one point his eyes met mine and in that instant I realized something had come over me and that I was and had been for a while I guess in a new and different state and that it had to do with him. I did not think of it with terror at the time but serenely because the first feeling of love is always serene, and happy. It rejoices. Life has a purpose after all. I kept it to myself, knowing it was not what the man was after, knowing it was in fact what he was running quickly from. But for a while it made me very glad. Then it stopped. And after, it did not go away.